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Two Childhood Friends Launch Hydroponic Farm to Meet Year-round Demand for Local Food in New England

December 17, 2012 |

In 1996, longtime friends from junior high school, Phil Todaro and Jeff Barton, took a road trip that altered the course of their careers. After Todaro read a Wall Street Journal article about a man who left a corporate job to start a hydroponic tomato farm in Vermont, the two friends went to visit him and became inspired. They believed there was a place in their local community for a farm that would provide pesticide-free produce year-round, so they set out to launch their own hydroponic farm. So, after studying under modern hydroponics pioneer Merle Jensen at the University of Arizona in 1996, the two friends and their families established Water Fresh Farm in 1997.

Today, Water Fresh Farm runs a hydroponic farm operation and marketplace in Hopkinton, Maine. Over the years, the two friends left the corporate world in pursuit of their farming dreams, with Jeff coming on full-time when the Water Fresh Farm Marketplace opened in 2011. Donna Todaro, wife of Phil Todaro and co-owner of Water Fresh Farm spoke to Seedstock about Water Fresh Farm’s history, its new marketplace and what the future holds.

Q: What is grown on the farm?

Todaro: Beefsteak tomatoes, Persian cucumbers, sweet Italian basil, Boston Bibb lettuce, baby spinach, microgreens and an assortment of herbs.

Q: Why did Water Fresh Farm decide to embrace hydroponics? What are the benefits?

Todaro: Phil and Jeff embraced hydroponics, starting with tomatoes, after learning that most of the tomatoes that are found in grocery stores come from outside of the United States. Or, they are traditionally field grown tomatoes that are picked green before being gassed to start the ripening process before they reach their final destination. Hydroponics is an environmentally friendly, tasteful way to produce all year long without it having to travel long distances before getting it from farm to table. Since hydroponics enables us to provide the nutrients directly to the plants in the amount they need, when they need it, we are able to plant at a greater density while still optimizing the health of the plants. In short, hydroponic growing practices here in New England can produce many more vegetables using a fraction of the water than is the case with conventional field farming.

Q: What are the details of your hydroponic system? Is it a specialized off-the-shelf system or is it custom?

Todaro: Our first greenhouses and the supporting system came from Crop King, in Lodi, Ohio. There are many greenhouse designs available. Crop King worked closely with us to supply us with everything we needed to get started with our first two-bay greenhouses. Since then, our expansions have been based on the experiences we have gained. Our growing practices, from nutrient recipes to integrated pest management, are likewise custom to our operations resulting from our 15 years of experience.

Cucumber plants growing at Water Fresh Farm. Photo Credit: Water Fresh Farm

Q: How much did the hydroponic operation cost to set up?

Todaro: Fifteen years ago, our initial investment was about $65,000.

Q: To whom do you sell your produce?

Todaro: We sell our produce in our own retail market here on the farm as well as wholesale through local grocery chains, such as Roche Bros., Whole Foods and Stop & Shop.

Q: Why did you want to set up the Water Fresh Farm Marketplace?

Todaro: We wanted to sell our own products retail since the trend shows more and more people buying local produce, supporting local businesses and getting in touch with environmentally friendly growing practices. We strive to highlight other local farms and businesses in conjunction with offering prepared foods from our farmer’s kitchen and cafe.

Q: What sustainable practices do you use on the farm?

Todaro: Our environmentally conscious growing practices include using integrated pest management and beneficial insects rather than pesticides, and using much less water than conventional field farming. Our market is a Geobarns post and beam structure sealed with natural, environmentally friendly Vermont Coatings stain. Energy conservation and green technology was taken into consideration throughout the building process. We heat the greenhouses with gas, which is expensive in the winter, but still worth it. There are always new things to learn!

Q: What challenges do you face on the farm?

Todaro: Even though the farming takes place in greenhouses, Mother Nature still plays a role in the success of the crop. But, we have a terrific greenhouse manager and staff who take care of the plants.

Q: What does the future look like for the farm?

Todaro: Our first birthday of Water Fresh Farm Marketplace is January 5, 2013. We will celebrate with our wonderful employees and customers. We will continue to grow the business in 2013 and beyond. We hope to inspire more people to consider careers in hydroponics. It’s hard work, but rewarding, exciting, and it’s a valuable resource to the world as a whole.

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